Little dragon, big dreams

Here are neglected facts and personal observations about Bruce Lee that I used to post as trivia before social media made some message boards defunct for good…

In February of 1965, Bruce once told Taky Kamura (in a letter) that he won’t be in Life magazine yet because they want to concentrate first on Batman. I should digress by noting that George Lee should have been portrayed in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. While not related to him, he was one of his closest friends. The perfect lookalike would have been Takeshi Kitano. Then again, Steve James (a martial arts actor) described the movie as the most expensive Bruceploitation movie. In December of 1965, Bruce told George that if the 20th Century Fox deal didn’t pan out then he would have two contracts in Hong Kong to look forward to. Thanks to The Green Hornet, H.K. could wait. In the meantime, he was elevating his English-speaking credibility by attending acting lessons hosted by Jeff Corey while still finding the time to teach martial arts to actors like Paul Newman.

The twist is that 20th Century Fox were paying him to attend the acting lessons. Being an underrated actor, another twist is that he was already regarded as the Chinese James Dean even before he returned to H.K. Considering the popularity of the reboot, I am genuinely surprised that it isn’t common knowledge that Bruce was told by his agent about the possibility of playing Chin Ho Kelly in Hawaii Five-O circa late 1967. The series was pitched to him as kind of like I Spy. In the first week of 1969, he sent a letter to William Cheung where he claimed that he was on the verge of forming an American production company specializing in martial arts movies and TV shows. He claimed to have a few important backers. He was alluding to The Silent Flute seeing as how a later letter to Jhoon Rhee informed that Project Leng was a code name for it – a working title, basically.

Leng will sound familiar to fans of H.K. movies because it means beautiful (e.g. it was said quite a bit in Wheels on Meals). The Boxer from Shantung reminds me of The Big Boss in that the protagonist (i.e. Chen Kuan-Tai) is so drunk at a party that he mistakes a woman for someone else. I don’t think that it’s an accident that The Big Boss was retitled as Fists of Fury while Fist of Fury was retitled as The Chinese Connection. After all, the latter title could easily refer to the Kung Fu school’s caretaker and chef who teamed up to poison Chen Zhen’s teacher on behalf of the Japanese. The Big Boss should have been retitled as Blades of Fury because Bruce kills more people with blades than he does with fists. If this title stuck then not only would the U.S. title for Fist of Fury not be changed, but Sammo Hung’s Blades of Fury would have to be titled Sabres of Fury.

Here are some degrees of separation: Paul Chun Pui was in The Sand Pebbles starring Steve McQueen, who was a friend of Bruce, whose Fist of Fury was remade as Fist of Legend with Paul in it. Chuck was originally offered Bob Wall’s role in Enter the Dragon. He didn’t want it because he already played a villain, despite the fact that he went on to play a villain in a H.K. movie called Slaughter in San Francisco (1974). Either Chuck was lied to about being the star, offered more money than what he was offered for Enter the Dragon or he was threatened to be in it by the director (who was a gangster by the name of Lo Wei). An actor named Johnny Wang Lung-Wei was known in H.K. to have expressed a desire to challenge Bruce. Johnny was a Triad enforcer. I wonder how many people have noticed that Bruce didn’t like to show his belly button when he showed his bare torso in the movies.

Bruce also never showed his bare feet in a martial arts movie. For all of the clamour about Bruce not wanting his Chinese films to be released in the West, he had proposed a similar deal to Ted Ashley (the head of the Warner Brother studio) in December, 1971. Bruce compared the offer to what happened when A Fistful of Dollars was released in the States. When Bruce was getting ready to work on turning Unicorn Chan, he was already working on a screenplay for a film titled Southern Fist, Northern Leg. While the film didn’t get made, the essence of it was distilled in the form of Secret Rivals. In August of 1972, Bruce had already thought about having Jhoon Rhee star in a film that was tentatively titled Tae Kwon Do. In April of 1973, Ted was requested (in the form of a letter) by Bruce to give some advice as to whether or not or how The Way of the Dragon should be released.

It’s difficult for me to imagine what kind of U.S. film career that he would have if he hadn’t died. In Enter the Dragon, he doesn’t look that modern – partly because of the hair and partly due to the clothes. A disco Kung Fu movie could’ve been a major stepping stone for him that parlayed to modernist eighties fare where he gets to wear a mullet. Given that Shaw Brothers was one of the production companies, we could have seen him with a shorter hairstyle as he plays the protagonist (or at least the antagonist) of Blade Runner. Even though Harrison Ford was wanted because of Star Wars, he wasn’t the only one considered for the role. There was Gene Hackman, Sean Connery, Jack Nicholson, Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Al Pacino and Burt Reynolds.

Maybe he would’ve been the hero of Missing in Action by playing a Chinese man who goes undercover as a Vietnamese soldier to rescue American prisoners. With the right hair, clothes and bravura, maybe John Carpenter (one of the more Chinese-friendly directors working in Hollywood) would’ve been convinced to cast him as the lead in They Live. I hate to say it but with Schwarzenegger and Stallone cornering the macho mainstream market with their characteristically American heroes, Bruce may have been relegated to leading some of the eighties movies which ended up starring the likes of Chuck Norris (mainly The Octagon) and Jean-Claude Van Damme (namely Cyborg). This could’ve put him in a position where the only mainstream nineties movies that he can lead are the ones which are decidedly non-action.

Then again, if Jackie Chan can be sought out as a villain by Michael Douglas (for 1989’s Black Rain) and Sly (for 1994’s Demolition Man) then why not a Chinaman with a more intense demeanour. Brandon Lee was a fan of Jackie, Sammo, Yuen Biao and John Woo; so Bruce would’ve been a fan also. He would’ve wanted his son to be choreographed by Biao while being directed by Sammo for Rapid Fire. You should note that Brandon was rejected by Woo, so there was definitely a H.K. flavour that Brandon was keen on imbuing. Maybe Bruce would’ve been bored with Hollywood stunt regulations, and decided to create his opportunities by making English language H.K. films which would be seen as superior to what Ng See-Yuen was doing when he decided that Seasonal should mostly make movies where Loren Avedon was the mullet-maned martial arts equivalent to Emilio Estevez.

To this day, people refuse to believe that Bruce’s fights were undercranked. This is done for two reasons – aesthetic and practical. The aesthetic reason is that it gives a kinetic quality that live action cannot equal. The practical reason is one of safety, not just for who’s being hit. It’s much easier to convey clarity of technique and it’s less tiring to work at a slower pace. Remember, these guys are making movies and are not going all out. If they were to do so, no one would want to work with them, because it simply wouldn’t be safe. Jeff Pruitt, the fight choreographer of Buffy the Vampire Slayer from season 2 to season 4, had this to say about frames per second: “Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee were both shot at 20 & 22 f.p.s.”

Roy Horan said for Inside Kung Fu (in the September 1983 issue): “Most directors and fight choreographers in the Far East shoot their Kung Fu sequences at 21 to 22 f.p.s. This makes the action appear somewhat slower than it would at 20 f.p.s. but it compensates by filling in the extra details of body motion – which are just as important. As a general rule, slowing down the film shooting speed makes any motion appear faster but discontinuous, and sometimes almost animated. Remember the old Keystone Kops films shot at 18 f.p.s.? It shouldn’t surprise you to know that most of Bruce Lee’s action sequences were shot between 20 and 22 f.p.s. to speed up the action, but then again that’s show business!”

In 2013, the D.P. of Enter the Dragon attended a 40th anniversary screening of a 1973 Technicolor dye-transfer print at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills. Given that Bruce was more than happy for Enter the Dragon to no longer be the English title of The Way of the Dragon, perhaps Game of Death would have been a better title for Enter the Dragon given the tournament theme. That way, the pagoda movie would have the other title. Fred Weintraub would have been relieved since he thought that Enter the Dragon sounded like it could be a fantasy movie for kids. It’s an indicator of how things could (or maybe should) have been that the July 2013 issue of American Cinematographer has an article titled Tournament of Death.

The credited cameraman recalling how he first heard from Robert Clouse (robbing clout as a director) about shooting Enter the Dragon in the Chinese New York: “It came in the middle of the night, and the connection was bad. I recognized Bob’s voice and probably heard every fourth word. He might have mentioned Bruce Lee, but if he did, the name wouldn’t have meant anything to me at the time. Bob asked, ‘Do you have a passport? Can you come tomorrow?’ All I could say was ‘Sure!’ And I got on a plane the next day.”

Despite having recently completed months of shooting a 1972 documentary with Clouse in the wilds of Nome (in Alaska), Gil had joined the production after Clouse had already shot some brief flashback sequences in Los Angeles prior to working H.K. for a few weeks. Gil was hired because after Rob decided that the language barrier between himself and the Japanese cinematographer was insurmountable. Gil experienced a rude awakening about this being a supposed Hollywood production with a certain amount of importance attached: “The studio at Golden Harvest was in a working-class neighborhood and very rudimentary. There were Arriflex cameras, but they were in poor repair and the lenses were terrible. The studio had a pipe dolly, but it was only available to use for special shots. I think there were two other movies shooting at the studio at the time, and I felt we were the least important film on the slot.”

Gil had a culture shock: “Before going to Hong Kong, I had never heard of Bruce and seen a martial-arts movie, not even a scene from one. When I got to Hong Kong, I saw The Big Boss in a theater, but Bob and I didn’t really discuss it. We knew we could do a lot better. Hong Kong was overwhelming. You could touch 10 people at all times just by putting your arms out for five seconds. Everybody was moving around, and nobody was looking at you. The camera crew would never touch a light, and the electricians would never touch the camera. There were always delays, and one of the phrases we found ourselves repeating a lot was, ‘Nothing is as it seems.’ For instance, if something wasn’t ready, there would be a reason, but that wasn’t the real reason. Lots of things happened, but we never knew what really happened. So, to try to get anything done was a lot of work.”

There was more chemistry between Bruce and the stuntmen than the romance between two of the characters: “Bruce had all these wonderful extras whom he’d trained and was friends with. Their work in the film is one of the primary reasons why it was so successful and Bruce looked so good. Bruce would throw a punch, and the other guy would just blast back. There weren’t any trampolines or stunt gear; they just took the hits. There’s really just one place to put the camera when you’re shooting a fight scene. If you’ve got two people and need to see the punch, the camera is going to go right there. We couldn’t move the camera very much, and we didn’t really have any place to put the camera very high or very low. The hits looked good from about head height, so 95 percent of the fights were staged at Bob’s eye level.”

The heart of the matter (in case that you wondered why the camerawork was less than perfect for the fights): “We had two cameras, but often we couldn’t put the second camera where it needed to be to sell the hit. In a simple fight like that, it’s pretty easy to stage the cameras; you want to be in close and then farther back. You also need to see both men very clearly as they size each other up. Then, as Bruce hits Bob, we needed to frame really wide so he wasn’t driven out of the frame away. For the tighter shots, when Bruce was posing or we were emphasizing a hit, we probably using the zoom. The most important timing was in the reaction to the blow, whether it’s before or after the hit. If the hit itself is less than a second, it’s 12 frames there and back, so the reaction has to be on the sixth frame. Through that squeezed Arriflex finder, I was just seeing half of what everybody else was seeing, and it was dark. I could usually see if something was a good hit.”

One of the reasons why I purchased this issue of American Cinematographer is because not only is Gil’s perspective overlooked (the photographic pun should be pardoned), but I wanted to settle a myth that seems to be part and parcel of creating publicity for a movie. In Lee’s case, he was presumably so fast that the camera always had to be overcranked slightly. Hubbs laughed and said: “I don’t recall us ever shooting at 28 or 32 frames. I can’t remember any discussion about trying to slow Bruce down.”

Why it’s a testament worthy of a trophy that no-one got killed during the production (Triad feuds off-set aside): “The banquet was a big set with a lot of people and a lot of lights. It was very confusing. The lighting was difficult in part because the equipment was primitive, unreliable and dangerous. There were no stage plugs; they just had bare wires that they shoved in the thing and would step on. There would be a lot of sparks, and they’d all laugh. Lights would fall down. The set would fall down. They didn’t have walkways, they had sort of a bamboo grid up there. There wasn’t any structure or scheme to it. We had no grip equipment or even gaffer time.”

Then there’s the issue of continuity (something which is actually debated by members of the Lee legion): “Once we were in a sequence, we would try to shoot it out because continuity became impossible – not only with the lighting, but also with costumes, extras and even crew. I had a great gaffer who helped set up the banquet scene, but after that, I never saw him again. So, the whole shoot was very seat-off-the-pants.”

Why the mirror scene was so unusual for its time: “A popular camera trick at the time, especially in commercials, was to use a prism lens for a kaleidoscopic effect, which was really hokey. Well, our set had a similar effect. I found myself myself looking at the floor a lot because it was so disorienting! Bob and I certainly didn’t have a plan or shot list before we walked on that set. Bruce was away for a couple of days – I believe he’d been injured – so Bob was able to get in there with a couple of extras and plan some shots.”

What should have been a dream turned out to be a nightmare: “It was daunting to work in there, partly because of the heat, but it was very simple to light because the carpet was white. As soon as I turned one light on, it became ten different lights because of the way it was bouncing around. I had a lot of fill from the carpet, so we didn’t use many units. Other than the staging of it, the scene was very simple to shoot, and we completed it in about three days.”

The following passage confirms a cynical belief (a kind way of saying suspicion) that the fights were filmed up close so as to capture Bruce’s charisma than the choreography of the characters that he’s fighting, making it far more of a vanity project than even something by Jackie (who is a less generous choreographer than Sammo): “The film really commits to Bruce. When he gives a look, when he pauses before he starts a fight, well, you commit to that. You hold on that. You make that the high point of the scene, and you don’t cut away. We could have shot and edited the film in a way where we didn’t commit to that. Bob had that commitment, and I helped him with that. Sometimes I would hold on Bruce much longer than seemed necessary. It’s a very simple movie, but the commitment to that character was total.”

Bruce could’ve been cast in musicals (especially a Peking Opera one given the prestigious background of his father). Yuen Wah spoke highly of Bruce in a way that reminded of me of Donnie Yen’s first two movies with Yuen Woo-Ping: “No matter what type of music I played, he could easily create the impromptu dancing steps and combined Kung Fu in his dance. He would dance and at the same time punched and showed off his muscles, he immersed Yin-Yang in his dancing totally. I and the other stuntmen were completely in awe!”

Maria Yi reiterated the sentiment: “I never expect Bruce could dance so superbly well. After the outdoor shooting at Pak Chong, we arrived in Bangkok. One day, uncle Lo Wei took us to the nightclub for dancing. When the music began, Bruce rushed to the center of the dance floor and started dancing. He immersed himself in the music totally. His dancing was astoundingly wonderful, especially in the light dancing, I saw him dance extremely fast with a variety of steps and styles. I believe no one was able to match him. All the people in the nightclub were all astonished and mesmerised by his incredible dancing.”